Monday, August 28, 2017

A Brief Encounter

I was leaving the library this evening, feeling particularly gloomy. I stopped (as usual) by the book exchange which is directly outside. (It is outside the library, but still inside the larger building which contains the library.) I always stop to look at what books are there, as do many others.

"Anything good today?" somebody asked me.

I looked around. It was a retired philosophy lecturer who is still a regular visitor to the library. He can sometimes be "difficult", but on the whole he's very friendly, and quite the lover of reading. Indeed, I once found a note he'd left inside a library book, asking other readers who were interested in discussing the book to email him.

"You might be interested in this", I said, handing him a book of commentaries on the Epistles of John.

For this philosopher is, unless I am much mistaken, a Catholic. Indeed, he was one of quite a number of Catholics in the philosophy department, back when I briefly studied there.

He glanced at it, a bit dubiously, and said, "Well, there are so many good books to read". He put it back on the shelf and kept browsing.

"I actually picked up a copy, here, of that book you put out." And I mentioned the title.

This was rather ingratiating on my part, perhaps. But it was true. This retired professor had been one of the editors of a feschtrift that paid tribute to a deceased colleague-- actually, a priest as well as a philosopher. It was a very handsomely produced volume, and there had been a fair amount of promotion behind it at the time. It comprised a series of essays which various philosopher friends of the deceased wrote, all touching on the ultimate meaning of human life-- some from a religious perspective, others from a secular perspective. I had read several of the essays, relishing the book's atmosphere of consequence and seriousness. I've written about my love for the whole concept of a feschrift on this blog before. (Or was that on Facebook?)

The professor looked up at me sharply. "You're kidding me!" he said, with surprising severity. "The library copy?"

Instantly I saw my mistake. Some years ago, the library had made the miscalculation of selling off some of our weeded books at knock-down prices, to our own users. Academics had snapped them up, often bringing tall piles to the counter at a time, but had also complained about the practice. Their indignation was compounded by the fact that many of the books had been donated by the various academic departments in the first place. My sympathies were mostly with the academics-- I don't like getting rid of books-- but partly with the library-- dammit, working libraries have to weed, unless they are going to be given more storage space every year. The books would have simply been chucked out if they hadn't been sold, but the fact that we were selling them off made it look like a cynical cash-in. Perhaps it had raised the spectre of Thatcherism, something academics are always eager to rail against. This man had been one of the most vocal critics of the book sale-- as well as one of its most enthusiastic customers.

"No, no, no", I hurried to assure him. "Not the library copy. Someone had put their own copy here." That calmed him down, I was happy to see.

We spoke about the book for a few seconds more, and I said: "See you later" as I left. He didn't look around.

I realized that the brief encounter had lifted my mood. I like thinking about the casual connections we have with people we barely know-- "nodding acquaintances"-- people we run into, people we recognize, people that we may chat with occasionally, but who we can also quite freely walk past without any rudeness. Similarly, I like the easy freemasonry of shared interests, even a shared interest as vague as reading. I tried to express this idea in a blog I wrote some month ago, coining the term "soft bonds". I don't think I succeeded too well, but I still like the concept.

This retired professor wouldn't know my name, and he certainly wouldn't remember that I sat in his class more than twelve years ago. All the same he recognizes me well enough for some chat at a book exchange, and he's not at all surprised that I'm familiar with one of his books. There's something deliciously cosy in such undemanding familiarity!


  1. I couldn't quite see the connection with Moore Street. For some reason you've reminded me of a story a priest told me, you mightn't think this interesting enough to post, but bear with me anyway.
    At that time there was NO active Seminary in Perth, The 'seminary ' was used in other ways,a bit like All Hallows, so they went to study in Adelaide where they were removed from family and apparently seminarians received little in the way of personal stipend at the time. A fellow student who had decided to cease the studies and return to Perth asked him did he want to purchase his books at a discounted price. I'm not sure how much computers were used then, but books were still at the forefront. This lad that was leaving, was QUITE a lad. There isn't really the same area/class distinction that Dublin has always had, but nevertheless some areas are wealthier than others and some are undoubtedly rough quarters and, as an aside, this fella grew up in rough quarters. The narrator of my story bought two boxes of academic books from him for $200-a big sum for him at the time. He happened to show them to a third party who pointed out the title page- stamped "property of St Francis Xavier seminary". The third party told him further that there were boxes and boxes in the cellar which students were permitted to take, the ones who happened to know about them. So, he confronted the chap who seemed nonplussed. He just promised to make up for it by buying him lunch at the casino and returning the $200. After they'd eaten it turned out he hadn't brought his wallet. He was still fairly stoic about it all, asking for a further loan so that he could win enough to pay all back. He did well but lost the whole lot at one last gamble, eventually slipping back to Perth without returning anything. They seem to still keep some short of friendship up, though as he mentioned talking to him only recently.

    1. Caveat emptor, I guess!

      The link to my Moore Street blog post was a reference to my fascination for places that are "inside" and "outside" at once, such as the concourse outside the library. I guess it wasn't very clear.

  2. The August edition of ANNALS, that I've only received on August 31st, has a different sort of article on LIBRARIES by an emeritus professor Wilding